- Rated R
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All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
acha Baron Cohen may be too famous to prey on unsuspecting victims these days now that most people are wary of being fooled by him, but dressing up in a goofy costume to lampoon despotic rulers still elicits plenty of laughs in “The Dictator.” Although it's a scripted comedy instead of the more free-form mockumentaries that he previously made with director Larry Charles, the movie takes a pair of conventional genres – the fish-out-of-water story and the romantic comedy – and injects them with Cohen’s trademark brand of outrageous and grossly offensive humor. It’s like “Coming to America” meets “Borat,” and though it could have been a colossal disaster, Cohen is one of the few people with the talent to actually pull it off.
The British comedian plays Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of the oil-rich north African state of Wadiya, whose latest announcement to pursue a nuclear program puts the rest of the world on red alert. When the U.S. threatens action, his uncle/head advisor Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley) instructs him to go to New York City to explain himself in front of the U.N. council. But Tamir has plans to get rich by turning Wadiya into a democracy, and in order to do so, he betrays Aladeen by ordering his assassination and replacing him with his dim-witted body double (also played by Cohen, obviously). Aladeen escapes his captors – although not before they cut off his beard, rendering him unrecognizable – and is taken in by an organic food store owner named Zoey (Anna Faris), who believes he’s a political refugee. While trying to adapt to his new life in America, Aladeen runs into a former colleague (Jason Mantzoukas) on the streets, and together they devise a plan to restore him to power.
When a film opens with a dedication to the late Kim Jong-il, that's a pretty good indicator of just how silly it's going to be, and credit to Sacha Baron Cohen for embracing that silliness. Though "The Dictator" feels disjointed at times due to the somewhat forced love story between Aladeen and Zoey, Cohen and co-writer Alex Berg strike a great balance between the obscene and shocking bits and the more clever gags, including a hilarious exchange early on where it's revealed that Aladeen's knowledge of warfare comes solely from watching cartoons. But while the film's kitchen sink mentality results in almost as many bad jokes as good ones, when it's funny, it's laugh-out-loud funny.
Cohen is responsible for a lot of the film's success, immersing himself so completely in the title role that he makes certain situations more amusing simply because of his level of commitment to the material. He's also not afraid to broach taboo subject matter, and "The Dictator" is filled with more than its share. I'd even go so far as to say that his ability to earn laughs through political incorrectness is unparalleled in comedy today, but if you can't find the humor in something like Aladeen reenacting the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre on his Wii, then his style of hyperbolized satire will be lost on you.
“The Dictator” doesn’t have quite as much of a sociopolitical agenda as Cohen’s other collaborations with Larry Charles, but it does land a few jabs that resonate, particularly in a closing monologue that exposes America as a closet dictatorship. The film also feels a lot more relaxed due to its scripted format, even though there's not much to the story. Thankfully, Charles recognizes this and smartly keeps the runtime to a brisk 83 minutes to prevent the audience from growing tired of the one-joke act. Granted, "The Dictator" still pales in comparison to "Borat," but after the disappointment of "Brüno," it's nice to know that Sacha Baron Cohen hasn't lost his flair for making audiences laugh.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
With the exception of the “banned and unrated” version of the movie, which boasts over 15 minutes of never-before-seen footage, the only other bonus material on the disc is a large collection of deleted and extended scenes, a short Larry King interview with Sacha Baron Cohen in character as Aladeen, and a DVD and Ultraviolet digital copy of the film.